As the title puts in no uncertain terms, directing duo Coodie and Chike’s four-and-a-half documentary Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy treats the matter of the subject’s genius as a given. To the naysayers, that might still be up for debate. But to place someone as incendiary as Kanye West—the American rapper, producer, fashion designer, one-time presidential candidate, and billionaire now legally named Ye—in the dictionary besides that contentious and sacred word “genius” is to assert an obvious truth worth repeating: that hip-hop produces geniuses who should be recorded as such in the history and canon of art. The Black hip-hop artist is expected to work twice, thrice as hard, to accumulate laurels and corporate sponsorships, break records and become an exceptional humanitarian and entrepreneur, to even be considered a respectable artist by white America—let alone a genius. But Coodie and Chike do not waste much time on making a case for the artist for the incredulous or uninitiated.
There are no laudatory talking heads, no sit-down interviews with the subject. Stripped of fluff, Jeen-yuhs charts the evolution of Ye’s artistry in three distinct (but tenuously titled) parts labeled “Vision” (1999 to 2001), “Purpose” (2002 to 2005), and “Awakening” (2005 to 2021). Over two decades the artist’s habits—transforming speech into song mid-conversation, performing in front of others without warning, driving around at night, ranting on television, seeking out the wise counsel of his late mother Donda West—evolve into a refined process. Coodie’s gentle voiceover assembles the footage into a narrative, that of an everyman and an underdog whose dreams occasionally overlap. Moments from Coodie’s life interject throughout, drawing thematic parallels between the two. (The film’s co-director Chike joined the project much later, as he was still working as a broadcast designer for MTV when he met Coodie and Ye. He is rarely seen or heard throughout the film.) But Jeen-yuhs is mostly fixed on Ye’s artistic method and execution. In this sense the film structurally resembles the unobtrusive documentaries of Michael Blackwood, who quietly films artists like Isamu Noguchi and Philip Guston in their studios as they discuss the practical details of their work. Likewise Coodie and Chike endeavor to distill the image of Ye from the clutter of celebrity culture. That Ye’s artistic oeuvre, business ventures, and political aspirations are tightly entwined—and that he is one of the wealthiest working artists in the world—makes the film a rare document of a new American dream turned into a fraught and incredible reality.
When they first meet in the early aughts, Coodie is a stand-up comedian and the host of the public access television show Channel Zero. Ye is a prodigious producer making beats for local Chicago rappers. Inspired by the five-year span of Steve James’ Hoop Dreams (1994), Coodie turns his camera on Ye, who heads to New York City in hopes of signing a record deal. Snubs and passes only make him hungrier for recognition as a legitimate rapper—not a rapper-producer. He practices a Grammy speech. He enters the offices of Roc-A-Fella Records and plays his song “All Falls Down” to annoyed employees. And once Ye is eventually signed to Roc-A-Fella, label heads Jay-Z and Dame Dash pay him little mind. These scenes possess a straightforward appeal because vindication lies far ahead, and because it is easier to celebrate the vanity of a promising artist than an accomplished one. But Ye is no less abrasive here than he is now. A disparaging remark made about Black people who “got that 40-acre and a mule complex, feel like the world owe 'em something because they never had nothing” foreshadows the more unsavory ways he’ll elaborate that thought in years to come. To hear it expressed so explicitly in his youth suggests that the artist’s bootstrapping—which he credits for his success—has always contained a tinge of contempt for those he deems lazy. “Just work for your shit,” he continues. After all, he does.
Because Ye neither writes his lyrics on paper (as his mother states in her book Raising Kanye: Life Lessons from the Mother of a Hip-Hop Superstar) nor plays any instruments (with the exception of the MPC), the best way to understand the intuitive way he makes music is to watch the pieces organically coalesce. The second part of Jeen-yuhs follows the recording of Ye’s debut album The College Dropout, during which he further develops his signatures: sumptuous “chipmunk soul” samples, eclectic pairings of featured artists (GLC and Consequence, Jay-Z and the poet J.Ivy, Mos Def and Freeway), and a vulgar sense of humor. There is a familiar eagerness, too, to broadcast his unsolicited and unfiltered outlook on the way of the world. “That’s another reason I want to rap, too,” Ye tells Complex in 2002. “Not just to be a rapper, but to express my sarcastic, my asshole opinion about things.” The only obstacle impeding his ability to do so is the label, which continues to delay the album’s release. The gap between the speed at which the artist creates, and at which gatekeepers come around to offer support, is most evident in the trajectory of the song “Through the Wire.” Ye conceives of the song after a near-fatal car accident that shatters his jaw in three places. He forms the lyrics in the hospital and the dentist’s office, records the song with his jaw still wired shut, and pays for the music video himself. Roc-A-Fella releases the song nearly one year later, but belated institutional recognition is not enough to undo the damage done to Ye’s pride.
At a 2015 talk delivered to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Ye asks: "Why does the person who has the most genius idea or cultural understanding or can create the best art have to figure out how to become a businessman in order to be successful at expressing it?" The beginning of Jeen-yuhs answers his rhetorical question with the story of an artist at the whims of the market. He is pressured to stay quiet, to wait, to acquiesce. His artistic longevity depends upon whether he can capture the fleeting gaze of those in power or win the fickle affections of the public, again and again. Jeen-yuhs implies that the only way out for the artist is through creative control over the production and distribution of the work. But for a maverick with lofty ideas in a capitalistic world, that level of command might only be possible by amassing great wealth. The last part of Jeen-yuhs finds Ye somewhere at the murky end of this line of logic, hated by many but protected by his net worth. The film compresses sixteen years of controversies (his interruption of Taylor Swift, his endorsement of former president Donald Trump, his declaration that “slavery for 400 years” sounds like a choice) into a montage of archival footage filtered to look like VHS recordings, as if to make the past seem further away. Surprisingly, Ye’s 2005 statement against homophobia in hip-hop doesn’t appear here, and the exclusion of this historic event leaves the viewer with a less complex image of his ideology. From Coodie and Chike’s hurried recap of Ye’s busy life, two throughlines emerge: an intensifying mental fragility and a more explicit espousal of conservative views.
Once Jeen-yuhs approaches the present, Ye has become an American oligarch. He owns a record label, clothing brand, gospel choir, and has launched a presidential campaign. (Last year, he opened a private school.) His bipolar diagnosis in 2017 ushers in a phase of music that is lyrically off-the-cuff and conceptually shaggy with harsher sonic juxtapositions. The move towards improvisation is indicative of a personal desire to own and explore the contradictions of the condition. It can also be seen as the result of the supreme comfort brought by a budget that lets the artist work on multiple projects across mediums at his own pace. (Unfortunately this intriguing increase in artistic mediums coincides with a severe amount of close-ups of Ye on his phone, and awkward compositions that reveal very little detail.) Though Ye once carried songs in his head to save studio time, he now mumbles through instrumentals. Hired writers wait nearby to provide assistance. On a trip to China and Japan, he divides his time between recording an album with Kid Cudi, designing shoes, and looking for “the best factories.” At his ranch in Wyoming, musicians and designers congregate in a large garage, where Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) is projected on a wall. A song is tweaked, a hoodie sketched. The day comes to an end with nothing really completed, but no rush.
It is difficult not to think of how many other artists would benefit from—or how many lost artists might’ve been saved by—such ample access to time and space. In Raising Kanye, Donda West writes: “The one thing [Kanye] appreciates about how he was raised was being able to question anything without being shut down.” The film shows that the corporatization of his artistic practice has granted him a level of absolute ownership over his artistic decisions that matches, or at the very least reaches, the level of freedom of expression he experienced as a child. In the book’s epilogue, however, his mother clarifies that earlier point: “Children have to have room to roam and at the same time have boundaries so that that roaming does not become detrimental." But who can place boundaries on an artist besides himself?
Coodie refrains from directly probing Ye’s politics—his disdain for “Black culture and woke culture,” his praise for Fox News host Tucker Carlson—or his behavior. Instead, he reflects on his and Ye’s enduring commonalities: fatherhood and Christianity. The latter serves as the compass of part three. Believing that “everything happens for a reason,” Coodie assures Ye that God will use his faith to move mountains. The film’s Christian framework shoehorns Ye’s life into two models of interpretation: He is either a Job-like character whose suffering is a divine test from God, or he’s a prodigal son whose deviation from the narrow path is a cry for help. Neither case grants the artist any autonomy, and both insinuate that his alienating acts need not be taken too seriously because God will always find new ways to use him as a vessel. (The film points to Ye’s overt declarations of Christian faith in the 2004 song “Jesus Walks” and the 2019 gospel album Jesus is King as proof of this.) Ye’s fate rests in God’s hands, and so too does his genius.
Contained within the sympathetic tone of Jeen-yuhs is a fair sensitivity to how Black people who do not fit or adhere to a standard of respectability are vilified. Specifically, Ye argues that he attracts so much backlash because he vehemently refuses to support the Democratic Party in a bipartisan America that presumes the “Black vote is Democratic.” But Coodie and Chike’s exceedingly generous Christian reading of the situation is more avoidant than protective. Concerned that one of Ye’s rants might become a manic episode, Coodie turns the camera off, telling the viewer: “I had never captured this side of Kanye before. [...] It just didn't feel right to keep filming.” In an interview, Coodie admits that during Ye’s 2020 presidential campaign he stopped filming the documentary altogether. (Ye’s hour-long campaign speech, which included an attack on abortion, is cut down to several minutes.) These omissions are guided by a faith in future redemption—a faith that God might one day extinguish “this side” of Ye—rather than an ethical commitment to the holistic truth of the artist and how he sees the world. Ye’s aforementioned rant is indeed frantically delivered and broad in scope. But his central frustration, regarding his need to “translate alien to English” when speaking to the public, cogently describes the struggle of a mentally ill artist who is dismissed as crazy for reasons that reach far beyond his diagnosis. Had the camera kept rolling, the film might’ve succeeded in fully clarifying why Ye is willing to go to extreme lengths to protect his freedom—why he imagines freedom as a business to be owned. Keen to land somewhere safe before any further turbulence, Jeen-yuhs closes with a prayer by Coodie: “Dear God, I just wanna thank you. [...] We trust that beauty awaits on the other side." Indeed, expurgation paves a neat path to look out at where the grass is greener. But the miracle of genius is that it does not require an end to anger, illness, agony, or grief. Nor does the genius need factories or political power or corporate offices to be free. But more free time and more money definitely helps.